There’s a lot happening in the European air transport industry. And it’s not just companies like Thomas Cook going bankrupt. Others are quite healthy and booming! So here are the biggest airlines in Europe by passenger numbers!
10. SAS Group
Passengers in 2019: 35.9 million
Fleet size: 158 (SAS), 9 (Scandinavian Airlines Ireland)
Did you know that SAS Group contains more than SAS (technically Scandinavian Airlines, though nobody calls them that)? It’s true, it also has the diminutive Scandinavian Airlines Ireland. It is the Scandinavian flag carrier, serving Sweden, Denmark and Norway like no other airline. Having started out in 1946, it also has a long history to boot.
In comparison, the Ireland subsidiary was only set up in 2017. The idea seems to have been to cut operating costs by running cheaper planes and not employing the staff directly. This backfired and the airline has been embroiled in scandals since the get-go.
Back in 1997, SAS was one of the founding members of the Star Alliance together with Air Canada, Lufthansa, Thai Airways International, and United Airlines. It has also attempted mergers with other airlines, albeit unsuccessfully. Up until 2018, 50% of shares in the company belonged to the governments of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, but Norway has since sold their part.
9. Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA
Passengers in 2019: 36.9 million
Fleet size: 34 (sans subsidiaries), 159 (with subsidiaries)
Known simply as “Norwegian” for any sane person, this is the third-biggest low-cost carrier in Europe, the biggest airline in Scandinavia and the ninth-biggest low-cost carrier in the world.
It started out in 1993 as a replacement for Busy Bee, which is a surprising name for a Norwegian airline mostly dealing in regional work. It’s fleet consisted, both back then and for many more years, of Fokker 50 propeller planes. It wasn’t until 2002 that Norwegian found it’s calling as a low-cost carrier.
Braathens, a large Norwegian airline, was bought out by SAS in 2002, which forced Norwegian to take on a more international profile, which it did, buying new planes with gusto and expanding to intercontinental routes. The rest, as they say, is history.
8. Wizz Air
Passengers in 2019: 39.6 million
Fleet size: 110 (Wizz Air), 10 (Wizz Air UK)
Wizz Air, the Hungarian wonder, is a relatively new kid on the block, only having burst onto the scene in 2003. It is, however, not the Hungarian flag carrier. The lead investor is the Indigo Group, an American equity firm, and the holding firm is headquartered in Jersey, the channel island that’s one of the world’s largest offshore financial centers (tax havens).
Wizz Air’s largest hub is in Budapest, which serves 60 destinations. While the airline is mostly interested in European travel, it also has made inroads into the Middle East and North Africa. That’s quite a lot for an airline that started with flights between Katowice and London Gatwick. On the other hand, Wizz Air’s focus on smaller airports is what allows it to keep its cost low.
Wizz Air’s sole existing subsidiary Wizz Air UK was born in 2017, operating from Luton. It had bought the take-off and landing slots from Monarch, which went defunct at the same time. See? That’s the circle of life in the airline world! Wizz Air had previously had two other subsidiaries, for Bulgaria and Ukraine respectively, but those have been folded into the main airline.
7. Aeroflot Group
Passengers in 2019: 60.7 million
Fleet size: 249
The official name is “PJSC Aeroflot – Russian Airlines.” It is, unsurprisingly, the largest airline in Russia and the flag carrier of the country. Aeroflot is also one of the oldest operating airlines in existence, dating back to 1923. Back in the Soviet era, it was the biggest airline in the world.
Today, Aeroflot has some subsidiaries under its wing: Aurora, Pobeda, Rossiya Airlines. The subsidiaries have undergone a lot of mergers and other changes before they reached their current state. Aeroflot operates mostly from its hub in the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport. Technically, it’s still a state airline, as the Russian government holds 51% of its stock.
Aeroflot is the 10th member of the SkyTeam alliance, founded by Delta Air Lines, Aeroméxico, Air France, and Korean Air in 2000. It serves 146 worldwide destinations. The fleet features a lot of Russian-made planes and is currently undergoing modernization. And while the future of Sukhoi Superjet 100 is uncertain, at least it dodged the Boeing 737 MAX bullet.
6. Turkish Airlines
Passengers in 2019: 74.2 million
Fleet size: 346
When Turkish Airlines was established back in 1933, it only had one plane that seated more than five people – that’s how far back it dates. Today, it’s still Turkey’s flag carrier. In August 2019, Turkish Airlines became the largest airline in the world by the number of destinations served – 315 in total. Having flights to 126 countries, it also serves more countries than any other airline in the world.
Turkish Airlines is headquartered in Istanbul Ataturk Airport, which is also its main hub. The company also has secondary hubs at Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen International Airport and Ankara Esenboga International Airport. Its subsidiaries are involved in more than just passenger air transport, as they are involved in hauling freight and providing support to the aviation industry.
Turkish Airlines is now a member of the Star Alliance. It has code-sharing agreements with a whole bunch of smaller airlines. When it comes to actually sponsoring non-aviation stuff, Turkish Airlines usually goes for football (“soccer” to our American readers).
5. Air France-KLM
Passengers in 2019: 87.6 million
Fleet size: 224 (Air France), 121 (KLM, excluding subsidiaries)
Classed as a single airline for the purposes of this article, Air France-KLM is the holding company that unites, well, Air France and KLM. This merger happened in 2004 and the airlines still maintain HQs in Paris Charles de Gaule and Amsterdam Schiphol airports. Both airlines belong to the SkyTeam alliance.
Appropriately enough, Air France emerged in 1933 after a merger of several aviation companies, one of which had functioned since 1919. It’s kind of a big thing these days, with a fleet of 224 planes serving 201 one destination. Its subsidiaries are Air France HOP! (regional airline) and Transavia France (the budget airline).
Legally known as Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij N.V, KLM is the Dutch flag company. It’s also the oldest airline in the world that still operates under the original name. It’s subsidiaries include airlines that provide cargo service as well as their own branch of Transavia.
Passengers in 2019: 96.1 million
Fleet size: 332
EasyJet came to be when a Greek-Cypriot entrepreneur got interested in the aviation business. He noticed an open spot in the low-cost carrier niche and went for it. Thus it’s only natural that when easyJet started out in 1995, it did so in the London Luton Airport. It helped that the airport gave the new airline a lot of free space to set up the HQ.
The humble beginning saw easyJet operate two wet-leased (that is, leased with the whole crew, maintenance, and insurance) Boeing 737-200 flying routes in the UK. After getting its first actual plane in 1996, easyJet immediately went international, competing with British Airways and KLM. Turns out, that was the right move.
When the time came for expansion, easyJet bought several other airlines. One of them was turned into easyJet Switzerland, a Swiss subsidiary. EasyJet Europe, however, was scratch-built. This one is based in Vienna. The other airline purchases were used to enlarge the fleet and the number of bases.
3. International Airlines Group
Passengers in 2019: 118.2 million
Fleet size: 573 (total), 278 (British Airways), 90 (Iberia)
International Airlines Group is the mighty holding company that holds British Airways and Iberia as its 100% subsidiaries. Those two were the original members of the merger that happened in 2011, inextricably intertwining the fates of the two European flag carriers.
Oh, and the ranks of IAG subsidiaries additionally consist of such airlines as Aer Lingus, AirEuropa, Anisec Luftfahrt, IAG Cargo, LEVEL, Vueling, and Avios Group. You may have heard of them before. There were some issues with Iberia’s profitability shortly after the merger, but those problems seem to have been solved in the meantime.
While the airlines all operate under separate brands, their joint fleet could amass 573 airplanes, nearly half of which are Airbus A320s. The entire group serves about 200 destinations worldwide.
2. Deutsche Lufthansa
Passengers in 2019: 145.1 million
Fleet size: 299 (sans subsidiaries)
Lufthansa was first formed in Berlin in 1926 and it has been a big player in the European aviation market ever since. Its HQ is Cologne while the main hub and base, Lufthansa Aviation Center, are at Frankfurt Airport. Its secondary hub and the Flight Operations Centre are at Munich Airport.
Besides being an airline itself, Lufthansa owns Austrian Airlines, Swiss International Air Lines, Brussels Airlines, Eurowings, and Germanwings subsidiaries. The total combined fleet would reach 700 planes. But that’s not all: some of the subsidiaries of Lufthansa take care of areas such as catering and airplane maintenance.
When Star Alliance, the largest airline alliance, was formed in 1997, Lufthansa was one of its founding members.
Passengers in 2019: 152.4 million
Fleet size: 412 (sans subsidiaries)
Ryanair, the king of European low-cost airlines, actually dates back to 1984 (and is sometimes criticized for employment practices straight out of George Orwell’s book 1984). It grew larger after the European aviation market faced deregulation in 1997, quickly filling the niche of cheap flights.
Despite serving only 38 countries, Ryanair carries more international passengers than any other airline. In 2019, the survey by consumer rights’ publication “Which?” ranked Ryanair as the least-liked short-haul carrier – for the sixth year in a row.
Ryanair has sister companies in Ryanair UK, Ryanair Sun, Malta Air and Lauda. It has faced a lot of criticism for cancelling a bunch of flights in September and October 2017. It also experienced major strike activity in 2018, as pilots and crews in Europe turned to industrial action to address what they claimed to be poor employment conditions.
Ever flew with one of these? Chances are you have! There’s also a non-zero probability that you have also encountered (or will encounter) flight disruptions. Flight delays, cancelled flights, and overbookings can strike no matter the airline. But you can fight it by claiming flight compensation! Doing it via Skycop is very easy – and you can claim up to €600! That’s basically a downpayment on your next trip!